Among the many booths in the Exhibit Hall at the 2012 International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass Conference this past September were many musical instrument manufacturers and dealers displaying their wares. Those represented varied from big names like Gibson Musical Instruments and Martin Guitars, to smaller-name luthiers producing one-of-a-kind masterpieces completely by hand.
One such luthier is Barry Dudley, whose company Dudley Violins has appeared at the Conference for the past three years and has gained a number of fans and endorsees in the bluegrass, Celtic, classical, jazz, and country music fields. His attention to details in tonality and playability are what attract players such as Darol Anger (Turtle String Quartet, David Grisman), Oriol Sana (Barcelona Bluegrass Band), Shane Guse (Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn), David Blackmon (Randy Travis, Collective Soul), Tania Elizabeth (The Duhks), and Celtic fiddler Jessie Burns.
Barry’s first interest in musical instrument making was the guitar. “While I was in Atlanta working for BellSouth as an engineer, I would hit all of the guitar stores in the area during my lunch hour. Around 1973 or 1974, I walked into the shop of guitar maker Wade Lowe. I saw him carving the headstock of a classical guitar. My heart just jumped at that moment in time! I realized that these cool instruments were being made by hand and they don’t just “appear” at the store. I talked Wade into letting me apprentice for him, but unfortunately, he closed his shop due to a heart attack right before I was supposed to start. I put that idea on the back burner of my life, and went back to school to finish up my ministry studies.
“As I was finishing up, though, I was realizing that the ministry was not for me. I bought a book on how to make classical guitars. I made a few guitars, and some people told me to check in with Wade again. This was like twenty years later, so when I went to him, he was impressed with my work, but told me to consider making a violin. So I bought a book on violin making and started off with that.”
Barry’s passion for violin making soon meant that his waking hours were completely filled. “I started literally doing two 40-hour-a-week jobs, working as an engineer for a company out of New Jersey and making violins. About 2004, the company laid me off. I saw that I had lots of orders for violins that took most of my time, so I decided to stick with the violin making.”
Dudley violins soon began to earn a great reputation, especially with country and bluegrass fiddlers. “The first real artist to take an interest in my work was David Blackmon. He was in Athens [Georgia], heard about me, came over and tried out my pieces. Then it sort of spread by word of mouth.” An interesting endorsement came when bluegrass fiddler Bobby Hicks visited Barry’s booth at IBMA a few years ago. “I didn’t recognize him, but I invited him to try out my violins because I saw he had a case under his arm. When I learned who it was, I was shocked! He left that day with one of my fiddles.”
As his craft progressed, Barry found that his niche in the violin world was designing and making five-string models. “That is what my reputation is built on. David Blackmon was the one who got me interested in making them. What makes them unique is that they are designed to be five-stringed violins, not just a four-string with an extra hole drilled in the pegbox. I used the Guarneri Cannone as my base model, and then I expanded on it. The internal air volume makes the low C string resonate evenly and is balanced with the other four strings. That’s one of the problems that I noticed with previous five-string violins, a lack of balance. That fifth string is like giving an artist another color on his palette—it gives off so much more. It allows fiddlers to do guitar and saxophone licks.”
Another feature of Barry’s fiddles is the choice of wood. “Traditionally, violins have been made with the back, sides, and neck being maple, and the top being spruce. After my experience with guitars, knowing that rosewood was a good guitar wood, I thought about using it on the violin. The same with mahogany and walnut. Other people kept telling me that those wouldn’t work. But it worked to me, and about ninety percent of the violins I make consist of ‘alternative’ wood. I incorporate a lot of aesthetic points from guitar making into my violins, such as laminated necks. I may laminate maple into a rosewood or walnut neck.”
What would be Barry’s advice to someone interested in becoming a luthier? “You need lots of patience. You are going to make mistakes in the beginning. You need to be tenacious and keep at it. If you make a mistake, you have to ask yourself if you can you work around it without compromising your quality… It may take twenty or thirty fiddles to fully understand what you are doing. You have to be willing to make some sawdust.”
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Spring 2013 issue.]
For more information on Barry Dudley’s violins, please visit his website at www.dudleyviolins.com/.
[Matt Merta has been writing for various music magazines for the past twenty years. He teaches guitar and bass in Detroit, Michigan, as well as performs and writes songs under the pseudonym Mitch Matthews.]